The struggle to stop HS2

High speed train speeding by in a blur
HS2 will shorten commuter trips from London to cities like Birmingham and Manchester
The courts have given the private corporation behind HS2 three weeks more to desecrate our ecological heritage.

Let’s move to save some irreplaceable nature.

Chris Packham’s bid to get the courts to agree to hear a judicial review case against HS2 was heard yesterday and the judges will give their verdict on it in three weeks.

But during those three weeks, HS2 will trash many more woodlands.

Now is the moment therefore to stand up against HS2, an icon of a dangerous vision of a tech-utopia. The struggle against this project is conversely an act of facing up to the reality that the actual trajectory of our society is now bound to be non-utopian, given baked-in climate-degradation.


I’ve long been a staunch opponent of HS2. There are so many massive reasons to oppose it: the ecological devastation that building the line is wreaking; the vast slug of carbon that is going into the atmosphere from its construction, and that it is planned to run mainly on fossil power.

These first two considerations alone are enough to make it clear that HS2 makes our situation worse, is incompatible with a 2025 deadline for carbon-zero as called for by Extinction Rebellion. 

Consider furthermore its extreme expense. For the same price tag as HS2, you could create perfect Dutch-style or better cycling infrastructure across the entire country, give every British citizen a free bike including free electric bikes for every OAP and still have plenty of money to spare.

Similarly, for a fraction of the money required to build HS2, we could re-open a bunch of old train lines to improve capacity: including the Great Central Main Line.

All this has been sacrificed for the sake of knocking half an hour off the journey from Birmingham to London.


The project will also lock in and indeed incentivise unsustainable patterns of long-distance commuting.

This shows plainly that HS2 makes less sense than ever in the post-Covid world: where we can expect a permanent decline in commuting and in in-person business-meetings. HS2 is a white elephant in the era of the hegemony of Zoom! HS2 is old tech, yesterday’s news.

At the same time Covid has shown us the true value of community, and of care; it is the beginning of a great relocalisation of our world. HS2 makes no sense in a world that is finally turning the corner on realising that speed and hyper-mobility are not everything, and in fact are not even good things!

But there are some who don’t understand why HS2 is opposed by environmentalist organisations such as XR, and the popular naturalist Chris Packham. I think the real reason for that lack of understanding is that they don’t understand why XR would oppose a train line  as an alternative to planes - haven’t we got better targets to challenge than HS2?

It has occurred to me, only very recently, that this lack of understanding can be used to explain what XR is now about.

Let’s move to save some irreplaceable nature.


How XR’s emergency-response can and should be heard as a cri de Coeur, now that it is becoming clearer that the full post-Covid reset we desperately hoped for is not going to be forthcoming. Sunak’s green investment package is dwarfed by his road-building package, let alone by HS2.

The world is already choosing not to reset deeply – it is choosing this by, for instance, undertaking substantial polluter-bailouts.

HS2 has therefore just become a perfect target because the world is not about to stabilise. Because the future will be more local: either through choice, or through collapse. We need to make plain the moment that we have reached: one where mega-costly carbon-heavy mega-projects need to go extinct…

So I’ve suddenly gone from being a staunch opponent of HS2 to seeing the struggle against HS2 as one we must (and now can) win. Because the deepest reason for all of us to oppose HS2 with our bodies and with everything we have got is that such opposition makes clear that we are not signed up to a now-failed vision of a tech-heavy utopia.

A ‘green industrial revolution’ is not going to save us. Maybe it could have done, a generation ago. But that ship has sailed. And now we are facing civilisational decline, perhaps collapse. Because the virus gave humanity its very last chance to be saved. And humanity said, on balance: no, we’re not going to be saved. Or at least: this civilisation is not going to be.


For this post-Covid world, we need to find iconic ways of representing this new story. Beyond a full imagined salvation, beyond that con, into a future where we need to focus on transformative adaptation and indeed on deep adaptation.

The way that groups such as XR most powerfully manifest a story is through actions. It now seems clear therefore that the struggle to stop HS2 takes on new significance. It is totemic for our new story.

HS2 itself tells a story of ultra-heavy-industry, of 2050, of a reformed business as usual at best. HS2 would put us on rails direct toward collapse. The struggle against HS2 tells a story of not being fooled by these tech-fix dreams. It tells our new story of no longer pretending that it is five minutes to midnight, and admitting instead that it is past midnight.

Hope dies; action begins. Pouring ourselves into the struggle to stop HS2 could just be the most powerful non-violent story-manifesting weapon we now have. A truly powerful one. We have the power to stop HS2 - and in the process truly to change the narrative and, if not turn the rising tide, at least stop fuelling it.

In these next three weeks, let’s move to save some irreplaceable nature. And if the courts don’t rule in Chris Packham’s favour then, then the epochal struggle to stop HS2 will come down to Non-Violent Direct Action. See you not in the streets, but in the woods, where the rails would run...

This Author

Professor Rupert Read is a political liaison for Extinction Rebellion.

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